Agricultural dry-up is an ominous phrase, but it’s reality on the Front Range as farmers sell water rights to satisfy unquenchable urban sprawl.
It won’t be enough. Population predictions show Colorado doubling to 10 million residents in 50 years, mostly on the Front Range. Experts with the Colorado Water Conservation Board say current water supply comes up short.
The question is how to keep farming viable while covering a Front Range domestic supply gap expected to be between 350,000 and 500,000 acre-feet per year?
The state’s eight water basins are negotiating solutions that will culminate in a Colorado Water Plan for future management, with a first draft due by the end of the year.
Front Range metro suppliers say the solution is diverting more water from Western Slope rivers and reservoirs via the 22 transmountain diversions already in place.
But state water districts west of the Continental Divide are calling foul and have calculated that if Front Range residents stop watering their thirsty Kentucky bluegrass lawns, it will be enough to make up the supply shortage.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, proposed Senate Bill 17 earlier this year with the goal of regulating lawn-watering. The legislation, which eventually passed, came up short, critics say. SB17 originally required that future residential development using water from agricultural dry-up could have lots with only 15 percent of irrigated landscaping. But the requirement was dropped in favor of “best practices” language.
“The rewrite was to study it further,” said water engineer Steve Harris. “At every meeting, we lament ag-dry up. The original bill was saying the next 5 million people can’t use water like the previous 5 million people.”
Over the last month, Roberts has been touring the state with the assembly’s Water Resources Review Committee looking for new ideas.
“I’m working on a bill to get more information to local government land-use planners,” she said. “That’s some of the feedback we’ve gotten from these meetings. Land use and water use have been kept separate, but our land-use planners can be more creative in promoting water conservation.”
Part of the bill would include incentives for those governmental entities participating in educational efforts when applying for state water money in grants or loans.
Inside versus outside uses differ in another way past the initial usage, said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
“Ninety-percent of domestic water use – your kitchen, bathroom, showers – makes it back to the river systems and reservoirs through return flows. It has less water-supply impact than watering lawns, which absorb 70-80 percent of it,” Preston said.
Preston is also chairman of the Southwest Basin Roundtable, tasked with forming a local strategy for responsible water use and policy.
“The state proposes a 60-40 standard for domestic water consumption: 60 percent for in-home and 40 percent for outdoor lawns to better conserve water for ag production and population growth,” he said. “But we’re getting a lot of pushback from Front Range water suppliers who are accustomed to the 50-50 ratio now.”
For domestic water obtained via transmountain diversions, the suggested ratio is 70 percent indoor use and 30 percent outdoor use.
Furthermore, increasing transmountain diversions have far-reaching consequences. Siphoning off more Western Slope water to the Front Range threatens the state’s water-contract obligations for downstream states like Arizona, Nevada and California that depend on Colorado River basin water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“They’re watching our water polices more than we look at theirs,” Preston said. “Colorado is the headwaters for a lot of their supply.”
Meanwhile, Western Slope water – especially the Blue Mesa Reservoir complex, near Gunnison, and Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir – are looked at with envious eyes by Front Range water districts.
But the massive reservoirs are mainly designed to store water for contractual delivery to Lake Powell and Lake Mead relied on by Lower Basin states.
Colorado is entitled to 51 percent of Colorado River basin water above Lees Ferry, Arizona. Once it is diverted to the Front Range, it is lost to the Colorado River system, eventually draining east toward the Mississippi River.
At the Water Resources Review Committee’s meeting in Durango at the end of August, attendees were told that one result of the siphoning off of Western Slope water to the Front Range may mean other river basin systems in the state, including those in Southwest Colorado, may have to make up the difference to fulfill those contract requirements.
To make a dent in unsustainable water demand in Fort Collins, Denver and Colorado Springs, they should become more like Las Vegas, local water officials say.
The city’s successful lawn-conservation program has vastly reduced water consumption and includes strict drought-resistant landscaping regulations for future development.
Roberts is concerned that there will be a lot of talk about conservation without any concrete plans or goals to achieve it.
“I was flirting with a bill to require a policy that on all state lands, we would stick to the 60 percent indoors, 40 percent outdoors ratio, but the timeline’s too tight to draft a good bill. I’ve been in conversation with Denver Water to perhaps do a pilot project on the Capitol grounds, and their representative has told me they’re open to continuing this conversation in depth,” she said.
What’s really required, Roberts said, is a new way of thinking on everyone’s part.
“I’m thinking about the medians at our new intersection (U.S. Highways 550 and 160),” she said. “The Colorado Department of Transportation is talking about landscaping and a sprinkler system there. Some consciousness raising needs to occur.”
Tree-ring data shows the Colorado River at Lees Ferry suffered a 60-year drought between 1200 and 1300, causing mass migrations. Water officials report this region has suffered a 15-year dry period, a troubling trend that needs attention.
“Front Range water district plans all include transmountain diversion as the solution,” Preston said. “We’re saying it won’t be considered until you get more aggressive about domestic conservation by limiting outdoor watering.”
More education is needed about the importance of responsible water management, said Bruce Whitehead of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.
“Many people don’t have a clue about the state water plan or the issues we’re facing,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do in our basin to educate the constituency.”
Herald Staff Writer Ann Butler contributed to this report.